Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Google Book Settlement: Black Hole or World Library?

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talk about copyright matters again – about whether the proposed Google Book Settlement is a black hole or cultural opportunity for the whole world. And why music companies want to grossly exaggerate the number of illegal downloads.

You can listen live after the 11am news, read on for my speaking notes, or after the broadcast you’ll be able to download the audio as ogg or mp3.

A: A few comments about the ongoing situation on copyright. First of all, we have an excellent story by James Boyle, who is a high-powered academic and well-qualified to comment.

Q: Is that about the Google Books settlement?

A: Partly, yes. He’s worried that copyright law as written might give Google, if the Google Books settlement happens, exclusive rights to our culture. He may have a point. But his solution, rather than to throw out the good things about having Google indexing every book ever written, or for that matter being able to see what you read – is to change copyright law so that there’s wider access to commercially-unavailable works, which it says are the main ones it wants to index.

And, now, two European Commissioners have come out and said that they want copyright law changed as well. Some cynics have that’s because they were encouraged to do so by Google, but I think there’s less to that than meets the eye. One of them, Commissioner Reding, has clashed hard with Microsoft on many occasions, and its clear that Microsoft regards Google as almost its only serious competitor. To be clear, here – I’m not suggesting that the Commissioners are dancing to anyone’s tune but their own, rather that their actions are being portrayed differently according to which corporate lens you look through.

Q: Surely there are some valid concerns with the Google Book Settlement?

A: Frankly, not many. When TV3 News highlighted it a couple weeks ago the best it could come up with was that an author might someday strike it big and would then find it hard to increase prices on their back catalogue.

Q: You don’t buy that?

A: No I don’t. I’m sure that for books as well for music, the greatest threat to an author is obscurity – and getting your work on Google has got to be good for you.

Authors get 63c in the dollar from books sold on the site. That’s a lot more than they do from bricks and mortar publishing I’m certain

Google proposes to make available a huge number of “orphan” works – stuff that’s out of print

The real point here is that copyright law is a complete mishmash. The only way to put a large corpus of material online is to deal separately with a huge number of publishers. The difference with the music business, where something like iTunes can exist, is that there are four main music companies there, compared with many, many publishers.

Q: Part of the problem is that the deal is exclusive

A: That actually isn’t the case. Google could have tried for this, but instead its setting up and seed-funding a rights-clearing house which makes the rights to online access available to all online providers.

There are some other good bits as well – it can all be made accessible, so that blind people would be able to read any book in the collection. That doesn’t happen a lot at the moment because publishers lock down electronic books so that blind people cant use their machines to read them. Incredibly, some publishers want blind people to pay more for something that is already in electronic form, and even more incredibly we let them get away with it.

And Libraries and universities can get access to the entire collection for a single fee.

The more I dig into this, those arguing against it look like the hysterical people in the US who have been misled by lies into arguing against reforming the US’s dreadful health system.

Q: So you are in favour of it, I take it?

A: Yes, of course. But what I’m really, really in favour is reforming copyright so that its not so convoluted and it doesn’t impose so much deadweight cost

A: I’d also like to talk about fictitious numbers being put out by the content industries about copyright infringements on the Internet

Q: And Elton John and Paul McCartney have come out and said something?

A: Elton came out years ago! But, no, Sir Elton John and Sir Paul McCartney – who have a lot to lose through so-called music piracy have come out swinging against a UK proposal to disconnect the Internet of people illegally downloading music. They say it’s a totally disproportionate penalty, and the industry should concentrate on finding better ways of selling to music to people. And, in another story, we find that the inflated figures that the UK has been using to discuss the number of illegal downloaders are just that: inflated figures. They were taken off a very small survey sponsored by the music industry and then substantially rounded when they didn’t look high enough.

As tech journalist Juha Saarinen put it the other day: despite whatever the music companies want you to believe:

* The number of file sharers isn’t anywhere near as large as thought

* The Internet isn’t 99.9 per cent P2P traffic

* The losses suffered by entertainment industry conglomerates are in fact massive profits

* Home taping still isn’t killing music.

The worst part of this is that the British government appears to have bought the numbers and is looking to use them as a basis for policy without understanding where they came from. That’s really not good enough. The press in this country would crucify a government who tried to that and rightly so.


A copyright black hole swallows our culture.

European Commissioners want to change copyright law.

How to turn 136 people into 7m – bad survey of illegal downloaders.

posted by colin at 8:34 pm  

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